Great Speeches of the War/Smith

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RT. HON. F. E. SMITH

[Speech at a great public meeting held in the London Opera House on September 11, 1914.]

Mr. Chairman, My Lords, and Gentlemen:— I rise to second the resolution which has been so eloquently put before this meeting, and which symbolizes an Empire united to-day as it has never been united before, because we have a profound conviction that in engaging in this great war we are in the right. [Cheers.] The causes and justifications of the war are threefold. I put the obligations of this country in the first place on our plighted word. [Cheers.] In dealing with Europe and with the world, it has always been one of our most priceless possessions that the word of England was the bond of England. [Cheers.] If, when we were invited to become parties to a treaty, which affected the very existence of a small and harmless State like Belgium, it meant nothing, why were we and other nations asked to set our hands to it? We were asked to set our hands to it because, with all the honour and responsibility of a great nation, we certified to that small State that never should her neutrality be violated, and never should she be exposed to the ravages and horrors of war—[cheers]—because it was felt by the statesmen of those days that the international security of the neutrality of Belgium would be likely to discourage aggressive schemes which were conjectured even then, and were perfectly realized to-day. One of those great nations, who were equally bound in honour with ourselves to insure that the integrity of Belgium should be preserved inviolate, has now torn up the instrument of which, equally with ourselves, they were the inspirers and guarantors. The defence put forward by the German Chancellor for this grave breach of international obligation that after all this treaty was only a scrap of paper was, to say the least, a little inadequate. [Hear, hear.] We were told in effect that the most solemn international obligation of honour might be broken if a powerful nation thought that they might derive some advantage from the breach of it. What is to be said to that small and valiant, but most deeply wounded nation which, relying on this scrap of paper, paid but little attention to the formation of a military machine at all comparable in scale or efficiency to the great conscript armies of the modern world? That small nation believed that when the Powers of Europe entered into a solemn guarantee they meant what they said, and that the maintenance of their integrity so guaranteed would not be made an excuse for the barbarities which have now disgraced civilization [Cheers.]

With a valour that will never be forgotten while the deeds of brave men are written about in the annals of warfare, and under every conceivable discouragement, feeling bitterly that they were not receiving the succour and sustenance to which they thought they were entitled from their Allies, the Belgians valiantly played their part and maintained a quarrel into which they had no desire to enter, and it is a paramount obligation in which the honour of this country is involved that, as far as is humanly possible, they should be put back in the position which they occupied before the war. [Cheers.] When the British forces are reinforced, as they will be reinforced in the future, I trust that they may be privileged in soldierly fashion to avenge themselves on those who have done these dire wrongs to Belgium. [Cheers.]

The second justification of the war is that our very existence as an Imperial Power depended on our participation in this war. [Cheers.] Not content with an Army which numerically overwhelmed every sort of professional soldier that we could immediately put into the field, during the past six years Germany has been building up a powerful Navy with the sole object, at the proper moment, of challenging the naval supremacy of this country. We could allow challenges in the military field, but we never have allowed, and we never can allow, challenges in the naval field. [Cheers.] From the moment that it became clear that it was the desperate and calculated object of German policy to challenge the supremacy of the British Navy the issue was bound to come. [Cheers.] Germany thought that we were a decadent nation and that at the convenient moment we ought to give way to the great apostles of culture. [Laughter.] If they had not believed that, how could they have made the dishonourable proposal that we should stand by while Belgium perished, and while innocent and unaggressive France was robbed of her Colonies and her Navy by the aggressive military bureaucracy of Berlin?

To their eternal honour his Majesty's Government would not agree to this shameful proposal, and in their action they had the unswerving support of every member of the Unionist Party. [Cheers.] The thorough justification of the struggle in which we are engaged is that we are fighting for the very existence of international law, which has wrested a precious fragment of humanity from the cruel savagery of war. We are fighting to maintain the prescriptive claim of civilization to assert the sanctity of the plighted word and to assign limits to a barbarous and irrational system. This war is going to end either when we break that system or when it breaks us.

The terms of peace will be arranged either in London or Berlin, and on the whole I think they will be arranged in Berlin. [Cheers.] Finding ourselves engaged in this war on a voluntary basis, without having made any inquiry into the advantages or disadvantages of universal military service, I hope that we shall go through the war as a volunteer nation, and so afford our German critics the extreme proof of our national decadence—[laughter]—and convince the world that a proud nation may ardently love peace and yet be fit for war. [Cheers.]